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In-Store Service Is Improving by Bits & Bytes

With the recent boom in 3-D printing and the launch of Adidas’ robotic Speedfactory, 2016 was the year footwear brands got serious about tech. In 2017, footwear retailers are ready to make the technological leap too—meaning it’s never been a more exciting time to buy shoes.

Take Nike’s extravagant new Soho flagship store in New York City. In a bid to strengthen its direct-to-consumer business, the sneaker giant has unveiled a massive 55,000-square-foot store, spread across five floors, jammed packed with what the company calls “immersive experiences.”

For customers, getting immersed will entail cameras that track their movements at different points in the store. Customers who get on one of the store’s many treadmills, for instance, can get their stride tracked, while other data points, like which shoes you purchased, will be communicated to the Nike+ app to better recommend products.

For traditional sit-and-fit retailers, however, the adjustment to the new way of business has been slow. The luxury of utilizing new technologies is for all but the biggest retailers a huge expense. For smaller, independently-run shops, even selling online is often out of the question.

But as consumers become increasingly comfortable with the idea of buying shoes online, smaller shops are being forced to change.

According to recent data from Fung Global Retail and Technology, consumers are buying footwear online 9 percent of the time, up from 3.7% five years ago. And while only 3.7% of consumers buy 100 percent of their footwear online, 13.4% purchase at least half of their footwear on the web.

“Technology has invaded every aspect of our lives, so it’s no surprise we’re seeing an increase in technology in retail stores,” said NPD Group Analyst Matt Powell. “Last year 1 in 4 athletic shoes were sold online in the U.S., so 25 percent of the business is now e-commerce, and growing faster than the physical stores are growing.”

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Los Angeles-based Sportie LA is one of the most storied and successful footwear retailers in the country, independently owned since 1985. Now entering its third decade, the retailer will be introducing several new technologies to its business in 2017.

In-store pickup of online orders, which Sportie co-founder Isack Fadlon calls “a must for most retailers,” will be implemented, as will same-day delivery of orders in the LA area. The store previously offered this service, but temporarily discontinued it due to the high cost it imposed on the business.

“It was a heavy burden on us as an independent retailer,” said Fadlon. “With the disruption of traditional delivery by various sources, the ability to provide same day delivery has become simple and cost effective. The ability to outsource is a game changer.”

Even more exciting than new delivery options will be the introduction of a tablet-based system to the store, allowing shoppers to delve deeper into product information, history and comparisons between styles. The same tablet will also enable customers to place an order for a specific style and size, which can then be brought out by Sportie LA team members.

“This, in essence, will bring the consumer closer to the experience he or she has while shopping online,” said Fadlon.

In-store pickup

In-store pick-up, it turns out, has been one of the few true success stories in retail over the last several years, offering a host of benefits for stores. If the size or fit of a shoe isn’t right, for instance, in-store pick-up allows customers to try and find a substitute that suits them better on the spot, cutting the cost of paying for free return shipping.

Better yet, while the consumer is in the store picking up their purchase, they might also be tempted to make additional purchases they hadn’t anticipated. Customers who pick up in-store also get the added benefit of knowing their order is in a safe location, rather than left unattended on a doorstep.

“While it sounds like a fairly mundane logistical thing, in-store pick-up has actually turned out to be quite lucrative,” said NPD’s Powell. “When retailers introduced it, it was seen as sort of a throwaway thing, but it’s turned out to be a goldmine.”

Creating a seamless shopping ecosystem between online, mobile and retail, where the consumer can browse styles on their phone, try them on in-store, and buy them online, or vice-versa, is quickly becoming the standard across the retail sector.

Take Amazon Go, the new concept store being piloted by the e-commerce behemoth. No longer will shoppers be hampered with long lines at the register. Instead, customers are free to take what they want out of the store and are billed by Amazon when they leave.

Contextualized marketing

Then there’s Aldo, the Canadian shoe mega-chain which operates nearly 2,000 stores under its retail banners, including Call It Spring and Globo. The company uses technology from Salesforce, a San Francisco-based cloud computing company, to consolidate all of its shopper data into one platform, enabling it to create a unique profile of each shopper to gain better insight into their preferences.

From there, Aldo uses this information to predict shopper needs and build 1-to-1 communications, including customized emails and engagement on social media. According to Salesforce, this has enabled Aldo to reduce the number of emails it sends by 40 percent, while increasing email revenue by 70 percent within 12 months.

“Once we know who that shopper is, we can contact them through their preferred channel,” said Dwight Moore, Salesforce senior director of retail product marketing.

As Moore puts it, shoppers are on a “journey” when they look to purchase an item, one that often starts on mobile. A shopper’s journey starts on mobile 70 percent of the time, and ends in a physical store 90 percent of the time. This means that a retailer must now have the foresight to enchant customers to its waters, linking interactions so that a shopper is engaged on each step of their journey. As consumers are increasingly in control of this journey, retailers must also be able to navigate shopper detours, including stops on social media and brand websites. According to data from Salesforce, 80 percent of customers do research on a product before buying it.

“Marketing requires context about who I am, what I am trying to achieve on my journey,” said Moore. “The best retailers will have a platform for this intelligent engagement, and those that are best able to understand that individual and what makes them unique will be the ones who are able to win.”

Personalized experiences

Beyond convenience, customers are also demanding increased personalization as part of the shopping experience. Using contextual marketing techniques, brands will soon be able to reach consumers in ways never thought possible before.

Try and imagine a future where, using a brand app installed onto a shopper’s smartphone, a customer is tracked as they enter and peruse a store. While this may sound like something out of science fiction, the technology currently exists, and holds a plethora of uses for brands. A shopper who is about to leave a store without making a purchase, for instance, might get a notification on their phone as they near the door, offering them 10 percent off on an item purchased in-store.

A company’s computer system would even be able to tell what purchase a customer made the last time they were in the store. This could help the store’s staff guide the customer to items that might go well with their previous purchases. Imagine buying a pair of red heels only to have a sales clerk alert you to a matching red blouse on your next visit to the same store.

Apps are proven drivers of sales, too, according to NPD’s Powell. “Consumers who have a store’s app on their phone are much more likely to make a purchase than those who don’t,” he said. “It creates a sense of community between the retailer and the consumer.”

But apps aren’t just making the process of buying easier. Take vFit, an iPhone app which aims to make finding the right size shoe less confusing and frustrating.

Using foot scanning technology, vFit determines the true size and shape of each user’s foot, and places the scan inside an outline of a pair of shoes, allowing customers to virtually “try on” the shoes they want before buying them.

This would go a long way toward helping to curb returns—a ballooning expense that many online companies must face. VFit says it is able to reduce returns for retailers who use its app to just 1.7% on average. Going forward, the company hopes to be able to integrate its technology into the websites of footwear retailers.

“Seventy percent of consumers are still reluctant to buy shoes online,” said vFit Technologies president Andrew Hanscom. “So I think the consumer has been asking for [a technology like vFit] for a long time. They want something that gives them the confidence to buy shoes online.”

Robots to the rescue

But what does the future of footwear retail hold beyond apps and online shopping? Much like footwear brands are turning to robots to automate their supply chain, one company is hoping to introduce robotic assistants to shoe stores.

Designed to help solve one of the biggest woes of retail, Tory, short for “inventory,” is the world’s first fully autonomous inventory robot.

Developed by MetraLabs, a German company which specializes in mobile robotic platforms, Tory uses RFID tags to scan items at a store and quickly performs the mundane chore of counting inventory. MetraLabs claims its robot can do this job up to 10 times faster than human personnel with an accuracy of 99 percent.

Tory recently celebrated its first anniversary of being used in retail spaces, and MetraLabs reports there are currently 260 of the robots in use at stores worldwide, including several shoe stores in Germany.

According to Johannes Trabert, MetraLabs executive partner, the robot has proven a hit across demographics.

“Young people and elderly people both used the robot and enjoyed it,” said Trabert. “[Most shoppers] said they’d like to use it again.”

Trabert says Tory is currently being developed to include additional features to assist shoppers in-store, such as answering questions and even guiding guests to the correct area of a store for the product they’re looking for.

This in turn helps make the jobs of human personnel easier, who are free to answer, as Trabert put it, the more complicated, “human questions,” while Tory is able to provide quick answers to simple inquiries.

“In apparel for instance, if [the customer] says, ‘I’d like to have this shirt not in yellow but in blue, but in the same size,’ when the robot knows what’s in inventory it could say, ‘Yes we have the shirt, please follow me.’,” said Trabert.

In terms of footwear, Trabert says Tory could eventually be designed to include a touch screen, allowing customers to quickly browse styles, and could even include a footwear scale of some sort to gauge the size of a shopper’s foot. As Trabert sees it, it could be robots in the end that help make the shoe-buying process more human than ever before.

“There are a lot of things that could be automated, and the way we see it, the robots will take care of the mundane, unfulfilling jobs, allowing those in the retail store to do the more satisfying human work.”